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Sandinista chief holds on for a return to power

Missing Persons No. 23 Daniel Ortega
I last saw Daniel Ortega in February 1990. In fact, that is when most of the world last saw him. He was riding into Managua's Revolution Square atop the "Danimobile," a converted lorry, on the closing night of his re-election campaign.

Gone were the thick-rimmed glasses, the unruly hair, the Castro-style olive uniform. He was wearing blue jeans, cowboy boots and a Paisley-pattern designer shirt with the sleeves rolled high, Springsteen-style, to display his biceps. As the lorry's speakers blared out his theme song to a rock backing - "here comes Daniel, Daniel Orte-e-ga" - he emulated "the Boss" by punching the air. The crowd, as they say, went wild.

It seemed like the whole of Nicaragua was there, crammed into the square, plus scores of foreign celebrities who supported Mr Ortega's Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN). There was the singer Jackson Browne, Ed Asner (television's Lou Grant) and Managua-born Bianca Jagger snapping photographs. Mr Ortega was a star. He was on a roll. He couldn't lose.

He did. A white-haired widow called Violeta Chamorro, heading a conservative 14-party coalition calling itself the United National Opposition, easily defeated Mr Ortega to take the presidency. After half a century of dictatorship and a decade of Marxism, Nicaraguans had learned how to disguise their views. Many at Mr Ortega's rally, it seems, had just turned out for the rum and reggae.

He may not have been much in the world news since that day, but Mr Ortega is still a towering figure on the domestic scene. He remains general- secretary of the FSLN, the strongest single party in Nicaragua's fragmented spectrum. A small heart attack last year did not slow him down. Following treatment in Cuba, Mr Ortega returned as undisputed FSLN leader.

His former vice-president, Sergio Ramirez, publicly split with him last year to set up the Sandinista Renovation Movement but that party is largely made up of intellectuals and artists. It is not yet seen as having the street support it would need for electoral success next year, although it is growing.

Mr Ortega also suffered a setback when his former culture minister, the Catholic priest and poet Ernesto Cardenal, quit the FSLN last year, accusing Mr Ortega of "assassinating" the Sandinista movement and comparing his popularity to that of "Hitler, Franco or Reagan".

Mr Ortega lives with his wife, Rosario Murillo, and children in the same unpretentious house in Managua's Carmen district where he has lived since the revolution, even as President. He rarely attends parliament but can occasionally be seen in a Jeep with the odd bodyguard.

Long gone are the heavily-armed Cuban army bodyguards who used to protect him. Fidel Castro, who had warned Mr Ortega against holding free elections, pulled them out within days of his 1990 election defeat.

Mr Ortega's opponents say he is "obsessed" with returning to power. They cite that obsession as the reason he turned himself into a thorn in Mrs Chamorro's flesh, using his grass-roots support to stage violent strikes.

Under a recently-reformed constitution, Mrs Chamorro cannot run in presidential elections in November next year, but, with a one-term gap, Mr Ortega can. With Mrs Chamorrocriticised for failing to reunite the country, for economic recession and for alleged official corruption, the Sandinistas will still be a factor then.